At least twice a year I fly from Brussels to Bangkok and back. My wife usually makes the same round-trip in the opposite direction every 12 months. With intercontinental flights not exactly cheap, we try to maximize our budget. Let me teach you the tricks we have picked up over time. Some are obvious, others a lot less so. Most European frequent flyers will probably benefit from reading this post. As an example, my latest air fare was just EUR 314.
This article is written from a Belgian and Thai perspective. All featured illustrations use Brussels International Airport as an example, but the situation should be similar for other European International airports. That being said, most European and Asian travelers might pick something up from our experiences. American readers probably less so, but they should not feel discriminated against. US frequent flyers have even more potential benefits at their disposal.
Airlines and airports
Plenty of airlines fly passengers from Brussels to Suvarnabhumi (Bangkok) Airport. Etihad, Aeroflot, Lufthansa, Air France, Qatar, Emirates, Egyptair, Swiss, KLM and Austrian will fly you over with one lay-over. While a stop does have some benefits, i.e. a chance to stretch your legs and use a proper toilet, a direct flight remains more convenient. A non-stop itinerary is only available with Thai Airways. Low-cost start-up Air Belgium has repeatedly announced that it would start long-haul flights to Asia. The most recent update postponed its launch to winter 2017.
Belgium’s second airport, Brussels South (Charleroi) does not offer flights to the Land of Smiles, but Thailand does have three alternative skyports: Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) which is also in Bangkok, U-Tapao International Airport (UTP) near Pattaya and Phuket (HKT). Let me save you the trouble investigating the first two. Hypothetically, one could book a ticket to an airport within the reach of one of Thailand’s budget carriers and fly to Don Mueang or U-Tapao. Brussels-Tokyo-Don Mueang and Brussels-Hong Kong-Utapao for example. Prices are not even close to competitive and a practical matter arises. Whatever you do, never combine directly connecting flights yourself, unless you plan on visiting the layover location for at least a day. Book them as a combined reservation (one ticket). Never book them separately. To be avoided in Asia and anywhere else. I would even strongly advise against a combined reservation (one ticket) of flights operated by different airlines.
Phuket Airport is a viable alternative, especially if traveling to the South of Thailand or if you would consider spending a few days on the island. Prices are competitive (and sometimes cheaper) compared to tickets to Bangkok and flights from Phuket to Bangkok are often dirt cheap. But again, such a combined booking is only to be considered if you plan to stay on Phuket for a few days. Do not book connecting flights yourself.
Finding the best ticket rate
Up until 5 years ago I would always book tickets at either a local Connections or Joker travel agency. To this day I still check prices on their respective websites. In the following examples I will use a roundtrip from Brussels International Airport to Suvarnabhumi with travel dates 13/10/2017 and 28/10/2017, as booked on 30/08/2017.
When checking the best online rates of the Connections and Joker travel agencies the value of comparing prices is immediately apparent. Both put Etihad forward as the cheapest carrier, but with a price difference of EUR 58.34. Connections beats Joker with a price of EUR 479.
Somewhere around 2012, I started using travel fare aggregator websites. Just like online travel agencies compare prices between airlines, travel fare aggregators compare prices between online travel agencies (like Connections and Joker). Whenever I am looking for a ticket, I consult Google Flights, Expedia, Adioso, Skiplagged, … but my favorites are Kayak and Skyscanner.
On this occasion Kayak yielded the best result and guided me to schipholtickets.com where the exact same flight suggested by Connections only cost EUR 468.84.
Next up, I always browse through flight error rate blogs. Flight error rates are basically low ticket prices that are available by mistake. I verify flynous.com, fly4free.com and secretflying.com. While I have never spotted an error rate that was useful for me, it doesn’t hurt to check. Supposedly, if you find an amazing deal there, it should be ordered and payed for asap.
After going through all these bargain websites, I verify their best rate on the airline’s website. If it comes up with the exact same rate (or lower, obviously), I book the ticket directly with the airline. As most airlines offer an online best-rate guarantee, this is usually the case.
With Etihad quoting a price of EUR 498.34, this case was an exception. I would order the ticket at schipholtickets.com, even though Etihad’s Best Price Promise clearly states that the price difference will be reimbursed if one finds a lower price on a third-party website. I would advise against that, as the report might have repercussions and eliminate competitive pricing.
When to buy a ticket
First, I would advise to take a look at ticket fares in January, whenever you are traveling. The airlines from the United Arab Emirates (Emirates, Qatar, Etihad) and a few others seem to offer lower prices during the first month of the year. Anything around the EUR 500 mark, I would personally snap up.
For flights to Asia in general, there seems to be a sweet spot right before the 90 days/3 month mark. Be careful though, once the date gets closer than 3 months/90 days there is a sudden price increase. Especially Etihad seems to raise prices on the first day of the month. This is my personal moment of preference to buy.
In recent years, there have also been attractive prices in the last two months prior to boarding. Rumor has it that Tuesday is the best day of the week to make your purchase.
But let’s get back to my search for the lowest price on 30/08/1979. Did I actually book the ticket at EUR 468.84? No, I did not. Yes, that implies that our story hasn’t come to an end and I was able to secure an even better price.
Just about every airline has a frequent flyer program. These loyalty programs are designed to encourage airline customers to accumulate points (often called miles) which can be redeemed for air travel or other rewards. Whenever you fly, you are awarded virtual currency (miles) based on the distance you fly. These miles can be spent on travel class upgrades, fast track access, priority bookings or … other flights and fare discounts.
I would strongly suggest to enroll in these programs. Here are the links for the programs at Etihad, Aeroflot, Qatar, Emirates, Egyptair, Thai Airways, Flying Blue (Air France & KLM) and Miles & More (Austrian, Swiss, Lufthansa, …). After registration you will receive a card and a number. Provide these at every ticket purchase and check-in, and stop wasting money. As an additional perk you’ll eventually get access to the lounges where you can grab a bite to eat, a drink and internet access, free of charge. Couples should also look into getting a family account, as this offers additional flexibility.
Spending just above 23,990 Etihad miles yielded a discount of EUR 183.99, which isn’t an amount to sneeze at. What did I end up spending on my ticket? EUR 314.35.
Flying isn’t the only way to accumulate these miles. Currently doing some in-depth research on that very subject, for a future post.
While this posts focuses on flying from Brussels to Bangkok, the content obviously also applies in the opposite direction (or for any flight, for that matter). Additional tricks might apply flying from Bangkok to Brussels. That’s another matter Mrs. di Glitterati and myself are looking into as well.
Do you have any valuable tips or tricks that aren’t mentioned in this post? Please do tell us about them in the comment section below.
To be continued.
Special thanks goes to the members and administrators of Thailand Gids Vrienden, for their valuable input and feedback about this post. They are the biggest Belgian Thailand-related forum and provide valuable resources in Dutch. As a matter of fact, a few of the most popular posts on Glitterati Blog will be translated into Dutch and posted on their forum in the future. Thanks for the support, guys.
Update 03/09/2017: This post triggered quite the storm of reactions on social media. Some of these contained very valuable feedback and tips.
One of the most frequent suggestions was to use the Momondo travel aggregator. Plenty of people seem pleased with the results. I will be experimenting with that website.
Others suggested to remove browser cookies after each search for a plane ticket. It is claimed that some websites use dynamic pricing that take previous searches into account, skewing the results. Playing with languages settings and trying different locations over a VPN was set to open up regionally-biassed pricing. While I personally haven’t seen evidence for these two claims, it does not hurt to try. If I ever get any result, I will post.
One point of criticism was that by referring to the price of EUR 315 that made use of air miles, I misrepresented the result. As I first explained how I found a particularly low price without any use of miles, I disagree. My point was to highlight the value of saving those miles and lead up to a future post, where I will explain how to gather miles without flying. Stay tuned 🙂